The Rosetta Stone for the IoT

Illustration by Am I Collective  

There’s an invisible hand in some of the world’s most meaningful technological developments. We take it for granted, and very few people beyond certain specialized tech circles want to talk about it.

It’s common standards, those agreed-upon sets of technology formats that drive broad aspects of modern living.

Widespread electricity wouldn’t have happened without the adoption of alternating current, the common standard for delivery into homes and businesses. The text characters on computer monitors and the sizes of paper that fill our printers and copiers would differ from machine to machine were it not for the format criteria overseen by the American National Standards Institute. We’d waste power on inefficient appliances without Energy Star, the standard created by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy. We’d worry about using everything from toasters to LED lamps without UL, the creator of safety standards for just about any item that plugs into an outlet. And we wouldn’t be able to field mobile phone calls without GSM, the global standard for mobile communications.

Common industry standards fuel new technological developments that transform the way we live, work, and communicate, Konstantinos Karachalios said in an interview with the European Patent Office. The managing director of the standards organization within the IEEE, an association for technology professionals, Karachalios noted that the benefits don’t stop there: Universal standards can provide manufacturers access to new markets and become an integral part of a business’s strategy and bottom line.

Yet, when it comes to the Intelligence of Things™ and all of the promise it holds, there is no common standard to help millions of smart, connected devices break the communication barrier. Nothing like, say, the established consensus for Wi-Fi, which allows anyone to take out a computer, anywhere, and access the Internet wirelessly.

Now, however, some of the technology industry’s biggest corporate names have started working on a solution. A new initiative called the Open Connectivity Foundation (OCF), formerly called the Open Interconnect Consortium, wants to introduce standardization to the Intelligence of Things™. It is developing an open-source software framework with the Linux Foundation called IoTivity, and a common set of certification standards: a shared language and platform similar to MP3 for music or MP4 for video. Such standards would signal the industry’s maturation and foster an environment for accelerated IoT innovation.

So far, the OCF’s membership consists of more than 100 companies and organizations from around the world, including telecommunications equipment providers Cisco and Arris; software corporations GE Digital, HP, Intel, and Qualcomm; and computer companies Microsoft, Dell, and IBM. Other international members include Samsung and MediaTek in Asia, and Electrolux and TP Vision in Europe. Participating members share any patents and intellectual property that stem from OCF research and development with fellow group members. Additionally, they pledge their intellectual property to the whole foundation so that other members are free to use it without the need to pay royalties, says Michael S. Richmond, the foundation’s executive director. The OCF’s goal is to make the developers’ work much easier and to create benefits for both companies and consumers in the process.

Jeannine Sargent, president of Innovation and New Ventures at Flex, believes a universal set of standards will bring the IoT ecosystem full circle. “There are so many devices with multiple applications across dozens of industries that need to communicate seamlessly with one another in an intelligent way,” she says. “Through unprecedented collaboration, the OCF is starting to bridge these technologies in ways that were never before possible.”

To build that bridge, the OCF is designed to head off the disorder before it gets out of hand. “The current experience of ‘an app for every service’ is too fragmented, confusing, and only for the geeky amongst us,” says Charles Cheevers, CTO of Customer Premises Equipment at Arris. “The next phase of the IoT has to be around a standardized onboarding experience of devices and a standardized cloud-to-cloud enablement of the service to those devices.”

As soon as a common language is created across an industry, a platform for building ever-more-remarkable things will follow. Without it, products like connected cars, new office equipment, factory tools, devices for municipalities, and smart home appliances hang in the balance.

“[A common standard] is the only thing that will enable this phase of connected homes,” Cheevers says. “The current landscape of an app in the Internet of Things is too confusing and fragmented for the customer. There obviously needs to be scope for different solutions to excel at camera, thermostat, or lighting solutions, but having a common standard to allow them to onboard onto single hubs and appear as part of a home solution…is the key to consumer simplicity and use of IoT services.”

Without common standards for the IoT, the foundation’s leadership worry, consumers will be limited to purchasing devices from a single company or company-sponsored ecosystem. “Retailers will take sides, not being able to afford to stock products from multiple, incompatible product lines. Businesses will end up paying for custom integration of devices from multiple vendors to meet their IoT needs,” Richmond says. “It won’t matter that Moore’s Law is driving down hardware costs; software costs will inhibit the deployment of major IoT projects to all but the largest companies.”

The OCF’s efforts are urgently needed to figure out a common standard for the networking layer in particular. Since separate technologies are required for each device to communicate via Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, ZigBee, Thread, or another competing protocol, the cost of accommodating the variety of networks can skyrocket, making it difficult for customers to use their purchases in alignment with one another.

There are so many devices with multiple applications across dozens of industries that need to communicate seamlessly with one another in an intelligent way, says Sargent.

 

Additional problems originate in the devices’ application layers, or languages they speak, which is a major issue that the foundation is working to solve. As Tom Kerber, director of research, home controls, and energy at the IoT-focused consulting and research firm Parks Associates, told Fast Company this year, “You may not have the resources to do everything, and you may not have the capacity, the bandwidth, the processing power to do everything in an individual product, so you have to make selections....Limiting those choices to the critical few is important.”

The OCF’s initiative is not without competition.

AllSeen Alliance, which operates on the open-source framework AllJoyn, is another standards group whose membership partially overlaps with the OCF’s. The alliance is competing to create the primary common language for devices to use and share with one another. But its patent policy is less collaborative than that of the OCF—alliance members only agree not to sue other members for the use of one another’s intellectual property.

The OCF will require delicate negotiations between many different stakeholders to become successful, but once implemented it will be much easier for companies to create products and for customers to set them up. “For the Internet of Things to succeed, it has to be underpinned by openness and interoperability,” says Jiyon Han, principal engineer and head of the Open Source Group at Samsung Electronics, a founding member company of the OCF. By creating a common framework for how devices connect to one another, open connectivity will move the Internet of Things past its childhood and into adolescence.

It won’t matter that Moore’s Law is driving down hardware costs; software costs will inhibit the deployment of major IoT projects to all but the largest companies, Richmond says.

In the end, the winning specs will have to hold up to scrutiny. An instructive lesson for the technology industry can be found in the creation of LEED, an environmentally friendly standard for construction materials and practices developed by the nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council. Despite its widespread use, the standard has caused considerable controversy. Many buildings received LEED certification despite featuring aspects that have questionable environmental benefits, such as decorative fountains and casinos where smoking is permitted. LEED has also been criticized for charging high fees; classifying certain common building materials such as concrete as “green,” simply because they contain recycled elements; and receiving large tax breaks.

To offer a solid set of standards for the Intelligence of Things™, the OCF is taking a rigorous approach through its IoTivity software framework and Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) certification program. The UPnP architecture enables seamless peer-to-peer network connectivity among wireless devices. Presently, this technology covers everything from digital security cameras to lighting controls to cloud servers.

Once a common framework is implemented, manufacturers will have a universal standard for both the networking and application layers of connected devices. This standard could one day be as groundbreaking as TCP/IP—the protocol through which the world has navigated the Internet for more than 30 years.

As soon as an IoT standard is carved out, device manufacturers will be able to widen their customer bases, and end users can expect to install everything from smart factory systems to smart televisions more easily. “Everything will just work together  as it should,” Han says. “This is the beginning of a time where devices will truly become smart.”